By learning to read at 51, the inspirational Jay Blades has shown it’s never too late

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By learning to read at 51, the inspirational Jay Blades has shown it’s never too late

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Criticism of celebrity-led documentaries is valid – do television executives believe audiences will only engage with issues when a famous person is front and centre? However, sometimes it works, as in Jay Blades: Learning to Read at 51 (BBC One). Because it was startling to see this man, who appears so fluent when appearing as a presenter of The Repair Shop, staring at the word “egg” on a flashcard and finding himself unable to identify its first letter.

Blades was diagnosed with dyslexia in his thirties. He left school with no qualifications but through a combination of determination and what he classed as “blagging” – finding a Harvard application form online, and changing a few words – he made it to university at 30 to study criminology and philosophy. Eventually he ended up on The Repair Shop.

Work has its challenges – Blades has to be briefed by crew members rather than reading the prepared notes. But what pains him the most is that he was never able to read a bedtime story to his kids. His youngest is about to turn 16, but he still hoped to read one to her. Speaking to other people in the same boat, Blades found that the desire to read to a child or grandchild was a powerful motivator for learning to read as an adult.

According to the programme, eight million adults in the UK struggle to read. One in four children leave primary school without achieving basic levels of literacy. Some of this is down to dyslexia but, in many cases, poverty is a factor. The programme also acted as a profile of Blades, and it was moving to hear him talk about his childhood, from which he said love and care were absent. When his fiancée recalled being read bedtime stories by her mother, Blades seemed surprised: “My mum just said, ‘Go to bed.’”

Some bits of this documentary were confusing – if Blades left school with a reading age of 11, how was he now unable to read even the simplest three-letter words? And why does the man famous for restoring beautiful old things live in a house that seems entirely furnished with black and white shiny stuff from Ikea? But the programme had an uplifting end, with Blades taking phonics lessons and showing a real pride in his progress – sending a message that it is never too late to learn. 

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